Saturday, March 7, 2009

Loss of Language

I was listening to a program on public radio this morning that was interviewing a guy whose job ti is to go around and try and preserve languages before they disappear. This wasn't the first time I'd heard about such a project, but it reminded me that among all other things we're losing in our rush to homogenize world culture is all these various languages. And I'm not bashing globalization, either, because I am well aware of all the good things it has accomplished. But these languages are the victims of both a dwindling population and a dwindling usage because there's little utility in learning them, other than for academics, when they're only spoken by an increasingly diminishing number of people.

Some of the samples that were played during the interview were ones which were likely no longer spoken as a living language, because the recordings had been made by elders in the community who have probably died by now.

It got me thinking on the ongoing evolution of language. English is in no danger of dying out anytime in probably the next millennia or two, seeing as it's been around for a thousand years or so in some form (though Old English is as indecipherable to me as Greek). Which is not to say that if we fast-forwarded to a thousand years from now we'd understand what was being spoken. The slang and common terms alone would probably elude us. Other major languages have been around longer... but we are approaching a point where the number of languages spoken around the world is dropping to a core group of languages.

Which might an optimist think that this would improve communications among us. I am not much of an optimist, at least not these days (actually I tend to be an optimist who plans like a pessimist) and doubt that we'll resolve our difficulties in communicating with one another simply because we have less options. But as someone who writes future-oriented fiction - yes, I write sci-fi, I know, I know - it made me think about the way my characters speak, and perhaps making some small changes to that.

Nothing large, because few things bog down a book faster than jargon, but just a couple of things here in there. (Like Josh Whedon having his characters in "Firefly" curse in Chinese, though that doesn't strike me as a really good language for swearing. German, on the other hand, always sounds like you're swearing even when you're just asking to pass the salt.) I haven't quite decided what yet, but I'm working on it.

In the meantime, if you've got a little extra and are looking for a tax-deduction:

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